Because of their length and definitive-sounding titles, Ken Burns’s films can leave the exhausted viewer wondering, “What more could I possibly learn about this subject?” Critics have often answered, “Plenty.” Jazz music did not end in the 1940s, or example, and countries other than the United States fought and sacrificed during World War II. Claiming to be authoritative, Burns invites attacks for his errors of omission.
Undoubtedly, such attacks will also be made on his six-hour film “Prohibition,” which debuted on PBS in 2011 and is now available on three DVDs. Readers of this journal will wonder why there is so little wine in the film, which focuses on beer and distilled spirits. Historians will note the lopsided attention to Prohibition’s origins, compared to the cursory analysis of its repeal and long-term effects. And movie buffs will wonder what happened to Eliot Ness. Despite these shortcomings “Prohibition” resurrects unjustly forgotten historical actors, presents fascinating film footage and photographs, and reanimates the sense of contingency that make historical turning points so fascinating. It is well worth the several evenings it will probably take you to watch it.
You will immediately recognize the hallmarks of a Ken Burns film: modern-day footage of preserved historical sites, slow camera pans across black-and-white photographs, well-chosen literary talking heads, a concise and witty narration written by Geoffrey C. Ward, and original music that pays homage to the period. For all that, this film is a departure from the usual ecumenism and determination to avoid linking past events to present-day controversies. Unlike 1990’s “The Civil War,” which deftly avoided blaming either the North or the South, “Prohibition” shows Burns arguing that Prohibition solved few of the problems it set out to solve and created several more that were solved only by its repeal in 1933. The film does not flinch from the horrors and persistence of alcoholism, and it helps the viewer to see the logic behind the ban on alcohol. But instead of dismissing the whole effort, the film takes seriously its causes and effects, its detractors and champions.
The three episode titles move the argument chronologically. Why did Prohibition pass in 1919? Because the United States had become “A Nation of Drunkards.” What was it like to live during Prohibition? It was like living in “A Nation of Scofflaws.” Why was Prohibition repealed in 1933? Because the United States had become “A Nation of Hypocrites.” Burns views Prohibition as a policy destined to fail. He also maintains the United States should wear that failure as a badge of honor.
Fortunately, Burns does not overstate this thesis by demonizing Prohibition’s supporters. In fact, the film lionizes many of them, portraying the herculean efforts of courageous men and women. Some of them are well-known: Lyman Beecher and his thundering sermons, Carrie Nation and her hatchet, Wayne Wheeler and his mastery of Congress. Lesser-known reformers also get screen time, which will raise their profile among the current and next generation of students. The Washington Temperance Society began in Baltimore in 1840 with a method to help individuals control their addiction that was remarkably similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded almost a century later, in 1935. In the 1870s, Eliza Jane Thompson began a series of mostly female sit-ins at taverns and drugstores, launching a bold movement that led to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s founding in 1879. Mabel Walker Willebrandt transformed the U.S. Justice Department into a national law-enforcement agency, one that pioneered such techniques as wiretapping. The film spreads the news about these half-forgotten historical figures, even though they supported a policy that Burns clearly opposes. He also spotlights a driven reformer with whom he agrees, Long Island socialite Pauline Sabin, who was instrumental in overturning the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933.
In addition to crusaders, there are criminals, and not just Al Capone. Impressed by the quantities of smuggled liquor passing through Puget Sound, Seattle police officer Roy Olmstead quickly put himself in charge of it and earned the nickname “The Good Bootlegger.” Pouncing on the Volstead Act’s exception for prescription medications, Cincinnati attorney George Remus became the country’s biggest moonshiner. Unlike Capone, Remus and Olmstead seldom resorted to violence. Like Capone, they wound up behind bars. The message is clear. The booze ban turned talented, law-abiding men into crooks, and who could blame them for trying?
The excavation of buried treasures will endear the film to historians, but scholars from other disciplines will find few original insights. Economists have studied the effects of Prohibition on alcohol consumption rates, on the California grape industry, and on the market for sacramental wine. The film does dramatize some of these effects. Products suddenly appeared on store shelves that allowed anyone to turn his home into a winery. The Volstead Act’s exemption for religious services took a toll on Judeo-Christian institutions. When only one-fourth of the sacramental wine was actually used for sacraments, and when “rabbis” surnamed Kelley and O’Shanahan purchased wine in bulk, churches and temples lost some of their moral authority. The handling of the federal revenue question is sound, but not eye-opening. The Sixteenth Amendment’s income tax helped pave the way for the Eighteenth Amendment’s alcohol ban by making the federal government less dependent on liquor taxes. The desperate need for more federal revenue by 1933 was a major reason President Franklin Roosevelt supported the repeal. This level of analysis is pretty much all the film has to offer the economists in the audience. It is a familiar but unchallenging narrative, the equivalent of a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.
So if the film breaks little academic ground, then why is it still worth watching? Because Burns’s films are now an American institution that attracts wonderful talent and serious scholars. No economics paper will have narration by Peter Coyote. No history book will be voiced by Patricia Clarkson, John Lithgow, Tom Hanks, Oliver Platt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Paul “the guy from Sideways” Giamatti. Historians still cite their venerable peer William Leuchtenberg, but Ken Burns can put him on camera to tell the story of his father’s ill-fated distillery. Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call (Scribner, 2010), appears on camera frequently as the film’s organizing device. Other writers fill the screen and offer keen insights, including Pete Hamill, Noah Feldman, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Jonathan Eig, and Michael Lerner. Occasionally, they repeat points from the previous week’s episode, but it is satisfying to see good scholarship rewarded with speaking parts.
The second reason to keep watching is to see the historical footage dug up by the production team. In documenting an illegal activity, where do you find moving images of people in the act of breaking the law? One obvious solution is archival footage featuring law-enforcement officers. Cops and sheriffs knew that stopping sales of all booze was impossible, but they still had incentive to make a good show of it. “Prohibition” features scene after scene of authorities chopping open beer kegs, whiskey barrels, and wine vats, letting the contents flow into storm drains. Another solution is to make your own close-up footage of cocktails and beers being poured into glasses on sparkling countertops. “Prohibition” rerolls both of these money shots so often that you find yourself looking for variations on the theme. Oh, look, that freshly poured martini has an olive in it. Look at how this time the neighborhood kids are scooping whiskey out of the gutter with tin cups to bring home or sell. I wonder how they cleaned up all that broken glass after they finished smashing bottles. After seeing a foaming mug and a leaking keg for the dozenth time, ones gets the sense that the filmmakers’ script outran their supply of unearthed celluloid.
Although these segments can start to drag, “Prohibition” startles the viewer with some truly fascinating footage. Instead of flappers doing the jitterbug, the film offers a fresh segment on reporter Lois Bancroft Long, who covered the social scene at speakeasies and jazz clubs for the New Yorker, wrote under the pen name Lipstick, and completely erased the line in journalism between participant and observer. The Lois Long segment features readings of her acerbic prose and footage of her quintessentially New Woman lifestyle. The frame does not glamorize Long and her proto-feminist drinking buddies, and it lets the audience decide whether public drunkenness and serial monogamy were truly a liberating force for women. The underlying point is that the widespread acceptance of illegal hooch opened the door to the acceptance of other activities and lifestyles that had previously been off-limits.
Even when the film focuses on the army of reformers who spent at least eight decades pushing for temperance, it yields profound surprises. The 1870s photos of Ohio housewives stoically enduring abuse and threats as they kept vigil outside bars and liquor stores are a distant echo of the iconic photos of college students sitting defiantly at lunch counters, department stores, and bus depots during the postwar civil rights movement. These resonant images force the viewer to question his or her own first impressions. How can I find one group of nonviolent protestors heroic and the other group ridiculous just because I disagree with their objectives? Burns also shows us excerpts from a 1909 nickelodeon, Ten Nights in a Barroom, which compressed the ill effects of drinking into a melodramatic crescendo not seen on screen again until Reefer Madness in 1936.
By far, the film’s most impressive trick is a reminder more than a surprise. Prohibition, Burns asserts, is not ancient history. The era’s alumni still walk among us. In addition to William Leuchtenberg, several octoand nonagenarian interviewees appear on camera to offer first-hand accounts of the dizzying pace of social transformation in the 1920s. Prohibition changed the way they viewed their parents, their courtship rituals, and their relation to law and the state. Repeal advocates used a carbon copy of the original argument that Prohibition supporters had used years earlier. If drunken parents were bad role models, so, too, were scofflaw parents. How do we raise our children to be moral citizens when so many of us break the law at 5:00 every afternoon? The interviews with John Paul Stevens, however, reveal these arguments to be oversimplified. Born in Chicago in 1920, Stevens recalls growing up the son of a prosperous hotelier, who by practical professional obligation was involved in malfeasance. Nevertheless, the young Stevens grew up to be the longest-serving justice in Supreme Court history, showing that at least one child in a nation of hypocrites and scofflaws could still develop a respect for law and civic order.
The film’s main strength is its willingness to be open-minded in ways like this. Whatever it lacks in original research or insights, it makes up for by modeling the proper temperament for learning about the past. Burns sticks to his argument to the end. Prohibition was an extreme solution to a problem that begged for a different, multifaceted approach. Thus, it failed and was repealed. In this claim, Burns is probably on the same wavelength as 95% of his PBS viewers. But he also shows his viewers that the counterarguments have merit, too. Maybe some good things did come out of Prohibition. Following Daniel Okrent’s lead, the film emphasizes that in the nineteenth century, the rules and expectations for hard liquor were truly those of a different country. Social conventions about drinking on the job, during adolescence, and at the breakfast table have changed completely over the past 150 years. As the acceptance of hard alcohol in public declined, the acceptance of women in appearing in public—either to drink or to speak out—rose, in no small part because of the Prohibition battles. The film leaves us to think deeply about the paradox that a puritanical attempt to regulate immorality accelerated the modernization of American society.